Review by Diane LeBlanc
My fascination with 17th-century naturalist and scientific illustrator Maria Sibylla Merian developed a few years ago when I was teaching a science nonfiction course. We read Kim Todd’s essay “Curious,” which challenges traditional scientific methods. Collecting and preserving creatures provides a means of study, but at what cost? Does the method reduce them to objects of curiosity? To illustrate alternative methods, the essay chronicles Merian’s extensive travel and personal risk to study the Suriname toad. The caution in Todd’s essay is clear. Merian took great care to locate, observe, and illustrate living creatures, and contemporary researchers should take equal care not to put their subjects, including Merian, behind glass.
Rare Wondrous Things, Alyse Bensel’s poetic biography of Maria Sibylla Merian, indulges a curiosity about Merian, the creatures she studied, and the illustrations she painted, but the book is more than a cabinet of curiosity. In “Visiting the Cabinets of Curiosity,” the speaker stands before shelves stocked with natural oddities: a rattlesnake eating her young, an opossum’s pouch, a manatee flipper, and spiraled narwhal horns. She remarks, “Stranger and stranger are the wonder/rooms that separate specimen from life.” The poem concludes with a brief manifesto: “Where I will go from here; stop/this cycle’s motion, let every species/evolve into a new unified order.” To be true to the subject, Bensel, too, had to let Merian evolve. In that spirit, poems take the form of letters, a glossary, ekphrasis, fragments, and haiku-like images drawn directly from Merian’s life, and persona poems dominate to give Merian a hand in her own biography.
Two voices–Merian and the poet-researcher studying Merian’s life and work–narrate most of the poems. These voices are different enough from one another to be distinct without jarring readers from Merian’s world. “Notes on What Comes from Dead Birds,” written from Merian’s point of view, reads like a lyrical lab notebook: “I opened its plumage and skin to see/white worms in place of a heart, intestines.” According to the book’s detailed notes, the poem is historically accurate. Merian watched for two weeks as worms ate the bird’s flesh. This poem, like many in the collection, pushes close observation to bigger questions: “Where has/its life gone but to/the single fly that emerged?”
Poems narrated by the poet-researcher are likewise lyrical. Several poems look closely at Merian’s illustrations and fill in biographical gaps with additional material. “Virgins in the Imperial Garden,” for example, describes Merian’s early painting or sketch of passive young women painting a violet as “their easels marked the hours.” In the evening, however, the young women transform, wielding nets and chasing moths. The poem ends with desire and entrapment in tension:
The moths shed pollen from
their thick furred bodies. The frenetic
beating of girl heart and moth wings
in flight, one fleeing, one in pursuit,
yearning to touch something precious.
Bensel writes adolescent Merian into the portrait of these youthful artists and soon-to-be wives. Later poems depict a maturing Merian chafing against gender roles and her marriage to pursue art and science.
The most intriguing poems, from either point of view, are the ones that speak from the intersections of Merian’s and the poet-researcher’s experience. In these poems, each life breathes into the other as the speakers grapple overtly with questions of domesticity, vocation, and life cycle. “Kerkestraat,” a poem near the end of the book, opens with an epigraph from Merian’s Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamesium: “[ . . .] the costs involved in carrying out such a project made me hesitant at first; but finally I resolved to do it.” In the poem, the poet-researcher ponders her own project one morning as she hears moths beating their wings and morning traffic echoing the night’s street noise. To begin work, she asserts,
. . . . I rearrange
these fragments into a legacy,
where I can breathe life
into so many blank pages.
While the speaker refers to writing poetic biography, breathing life into blank pages was also Merian’s work. Shared experiences such as this one reveal Bensel’s nuanced understanding of Merian’s life and work and are critical to the authenticity of this ambitious persona project.
In the book’s acknowledgements, Bensel expresses gratitude for “Maria Sibylla Merian & Daughters, Women of Art and Science,” an exhibit in Amsterdam that seeded Bensel’s curiosity during a visit in 2008. Bensel returns to the exhibit in one of the last poems in the book, “Women of Art and Science at the Rembrandt House Museum.” The poem circles back to Merian’s lifelong question of how to study life cycles. Looking at the exhibit of “egg, pupa, and butterfly arranged/around host plant,” the speaker faces her fear of disrupting order:
she never relied on pinned thoraxes that brittle
when stored in glass cases. Only what moves,
what can escape.
I am afraid of changing
how dust measures a corner. Even still
resurrection occurs without record.
This poem, like many in Rare Wondrous Things, revisits Enlightenment questions of mortality and resurrection with a 21st-century sensibility. Bensel’s collecting, rearranging, and curating give new life to Merian’s story. At the same time, the poems document old orders that objectified and constrained. This book disrupts what I knew of Maria Sibylla Merian and makes me even more curious to understand her life and her work.
Diane LeBlanc is a writer, teacher, and book artist with roots in Vermont, Wyoming, and Minnesota. Her newest collection of poems is forthcoming from Terrapin Books in 2021. To learn more, please visit www.dianeleblancwriter.comTo learn more, please visit www.dianeleblancwriter.com